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The show goes on for UK theatres as Covid rules ease
Pedestrians walk past The Garrick Theatre in central London on May 16, 2021, one of London's theatres opening this week. England will take the next step of reopening on Monday as planned, but the final stage, currently scheduled for June 21, could be in doubt after a rise in cases of the Indian coronavirus variant. Niklas HALLE'N / AFP.

by Imran Marashli

LONDON (AFP).- The curtain went up again in Britain's theatres this week, after a year of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, bringing hopes of recovery for the beleaguered culture sector.

College lecturer Denise O'Brien, 49, seized the opportunity to visit London's Bridge Theatre on Monday, as restrictions on indoor mixing were finally eased.

"It's a really controlled environment. I've always loved the theatre -- the industry is going to die if we don't go," she told AFP.

Heather Alderson, a 56-year-old advertising employee, braved a downpour and booked an hour off work to visit a theatre for the first time in more than 12 months.

"You can get narrative from anywhere, but nothing beats theatre in its immersiveness and the fact that it's live," she said.

Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" -- the world's longest-running play -- returned to St Martin's Theatre in London's West End entertainment district on Monday.

A special concert production of "Les Miserables" takes centre stage at the Sondheim Theatre from Thursday, while "A Midsummer Night's Dream" returns to Shakespeare's Globe from Wednesday.

'A mixed picture'

Thousands of jobs were threatened as theatres were shut and Britain lurched from one period of restrictions to another throughout 2020.

But despite the reopening, many larger venues will not welcome back theatregoers immediately as social distancing requirements mean some shows are not profitable.

Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre, welcomed the changes, even though only one-third of West End theatres plan to reopen straightaway.

"We are desperate to have everything open, but it's fantastic that we can open in parts," he told AFP.

"It gets audiences back into theatres and, crucially, provides employment for people in our sector."

Bird previously warned that 70 percent of theatres would go bust by the end of 2020 without state support, while a study for the Creative Industries Federation predicted 200,000 job losses without government intervention.

Now he remains optimistic about British theatre's future and the international primacy of the West End, which drew over 15 million visitors and generated revenues of almost £800 million ($1.1 billion, 928 million euros) in 2019.

"It's a mixed picture but not nearly as bad as it looked like being," he said. "We've learned a lot about Covid and I'm proud we have this safety mark for theatres.

"The pipeline of production is coming through and new shows are opening. That creativity and flair hasn't gone at all."

'Utter contempt'

Although government support has kept organisations afloat, some people have fallen through gaps in the safety net.

Freelancers make up an estimated 70 percent of theatre workers and were hit hard by lockdowns due to their fragile employment status.

Freelance lighting designer Robbie Butler, 27, worked in the West End before the pandemic and received self-employment income support.

However, British theatre's "notoriously low" freelance fees forced him to do other jobs and move in with family in Glasgow to make ends meet.

"It's difficult to plan with everything that's happened over the past year. We have to defend our existence," he told AFP.

"It gets quite frustrating after a while -- it feels like we are held in utter contempt."

But the gradual reopening of society and the economy offers hope for Butler and his sector.

"Contracts are starting to come in and the phone has started to ring again. The world is starting to return but there's apprehension as well," he said.

© Agence France-Presse

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